By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
“I am the grandma, how can I not go? Am I comfortable going? No, I am not,” says Barbara Gilbert of Las Vegas. Her grandson, Yosef Aryeh, will be having his bar mitzvah this February in Efrat, Israel. Though she says the trip makes her “very nervous,” Gilbert is still planning to travel to the Holy Land for the celebration.
But not everyone is as resolute as Gilbert. Many grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins have decided not to attend their relatives’ simchas (happy occasions) because of the security situation in Israel—a situation that ebbs and flows and whose hotspots shift from one part of the country to another.
Renee Ghert-Zand made aliyah from Palo Alto, Calif., to Jerusalem six months ago. Her son celebrated his bar mitzvah on Dec. 25, with his grandfather as the only family member on her side from outside Israel in attendance.
Ghert-Zand says the Nov. 18 Palestinian terrorist attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, which killed four rabbis and a Druze policeman, pushed possible attendees over the edge.
“Later that day and the next day, I got one cancellation after another,” she says.
Barbara Gilbert’s son and daughter-in-law and their three children have been living in Israel for more than a decade, and Gilbert has seen them go through the Second Intifada and multiple Gaza wars. Yet this past summer’s events on the ground left her particularly shaken and scared.
One Saturday evening when she was visiting Israel during Operation Protective Edge, a siren went off while Gilbert was walking with her daughter-in-law and 2-year-old grandson. The family, which was far from a shelter, ran to take cover at a nearby medical center.
“The siren was going and it was such a loud and very scary noise,” recalls Gilbert, noting that the medical center was locked, but that her daughter-in-law and grandson ran and hid under the overhang. “I was a little older and I didn’t make it.”
During the short run, Gilbert told herself, “I am a nice person. Why do they want to hurt me?” She cried and clenched her teeth so hard that she broke a tooth.
“I get tears in my eyes telling it all over again. I was just so shook up,” Gilbert tells JNS.org. “But then all Yossi (her grandson) says to us is, ‘Are you coming for my bar mitzvah? Are you coming?’ How can we say no to him?”
While it’s difficult to argue with fear, Renee Ghert-Zand feels that as someone who lives in Israel, she has her finger on the pulse of the risks involved on the ground.
“People sort of get the wrong impression by watching the news,” she says. “They literally think [terrorists] are running through the streets with meat cleavers. Yes, there are random runnings over of people at bus stops and it’s terrible and scary. … But daily life continues here. You never know what the situation will be here in Israel, but you have to go on with your life—plan simchas, celebrate. I would hope that those planning to come celebrate [future simchas] won’t cancel. As long as they are able to get here, they should come.”
That was the way Atara Kennedy of Silver Spring, Md., looked at the recent bat mitzvah trip she planned for her daughter, Grace.
“You cannot stop living,” she tells JNS.org. “And we would not stop our trip. It would send a message to the Israelis that we have abandoned them, turned our backs.”
Atara and her daughter toured Israel from Nov. 23 to Dec. 7, and their visit overlapped with the high school trip of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, where Grace is a student. Kennedy says there was “a lot of positive energy” around the winter experience and feels her daughter got out of it what was expected: a greater understanding of the Jewish state and an even deeper connection with Israel.
“Neither of us had ever been to Israel,” Kennedy says. “A party—or anything else—would not have been as meaningful.”
Authentic Israel, one of the largest facilitators of the free 10-day Taglit-Birthright Israel trips for Jews ages 18-26, also runs regular bar and bat mitzvah tours. Guy Har-Nir, Authentic Israel’s head of educational operations, tells JNS.org that while there was a decrease in tourism to Israel over the summer, “right now we see it’s coming back.” Authentic Israel predicts that there will be even more tour groups visiting Israel in the summer of 2015 than there were in the summer of 2013, the year before Operation Protective Edge.
Har-Nir says it is common for families to rethink their bar or bat mitzvah tours because of the security situation in Israel. But he says prospective tourists should know that tour providers are closely tuned in to the Israel Defense Forces and other official government security agencies.
“Israel is a very safe place, especially for tourists,” Har-Nir says, noting that tour guides typically have the ability to steer clear of problem areas and offer a meaningful but safe experience.
“I think especially with a bar or bat mitzvah, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that doesn’t come back,” says Har-Nir. “Coming to Israel for this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.”
Maayan Jaffe is senior writer/editor at Netsmart (ntst.com) and an Overland Park-based freelance writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter, @MaayanJaffe.
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